What a regulated free press would look like

If you want to try to judge the shape of a proposed censorship regime, there are few better methods than observing the sort of people who are cheer-leading the scheme. Although of course all forms of censorship are anathema to libertarians, the exact nature of the threat is always worth divining.

The inspiration for this post was last week's Question Time, the panel of which consisted of Philip Hammond, Alastair Campbell, Shirley Williams, Steve Coogan and Ann Leslie. One of the sections was whether or not the post-Leveson press needed statutory regulation. The two champions of censorship on the panel were Coogan and Campbell, who took the view that some form of independent regulation of the press was necessary in order to restrain the worst criminal practises.

The two most vocal opponents were Shirley Williams and Ann Leslie. Ms Leslie in particular drew on her extensive experience as a foreign correspondent to warn that wherever she want, the Minister of Information is always in favour of a ‘responsible’ free press, and that a truly free press is fundamental to democracy. Her views were not really permitted to count, however, because she committed the egregious career-sin of writing for the Daily Mail. This brings me to my main point.

Both Campbell and Coogan spent a good portion of the show playing for cheap applause by lambasting the Daily Mail and that other great liberal-left Satan, News International. Scarcely a question could go by without some cheap joke at the Mail’s expense. Defending censorship, Coogan querulously queried whether or not we could have a ‘free press’ when Rupert Murdoch owned so large a share of it (the answer is yes).

As I’ve argued in the past, the Mail and especially the Murdoch papers have such a large readership not because of any great corporate conspiracy but because their papers are very popular. Murdoch only owns three national papers, no more than the Mirror Group. It is just that more people like – and buy, of their own free will – his output. This infuriates a certain species of Guardian reader (although not all of them) who genuinely believe that their tastes and preferences should carry more weight than that of the ordinary public. The fact that their newspaper of choice has to be propped up by Auto Trader and has the lowest circulation of any quality daily baffles and infuriates them.

Like fast food and cigarettes, they view right-wing journalism as a morally debilitating opiate upon which the masses have become cruelly hooked. So what’s needed is statutory regulation that will afford a narrow band of elitists the opportunity to ‘correct’ the market tendency towards journalism they dislike. It is inevitable that any censorship regime, however well-meaning, will be informed by the prejudices of its enforcers. We must not allow the political class to make the same mess of the press that they make of so much else.